Sunday 22 November 2020

Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. Curdworth to Marston Farm

After a stormy night we woke up on boating day to a clear blue autumn sky. We set off early because we weren’t sure that Legend would fit in the small winding hole at Minworth; it’s not marked on the map as a winding hole, mainly because it’s just a kink in the towpath, but we’d looked at it from different angles and we were sure we’d fit. If we didn’t we’d have to go all the way back to Star City in Birmingham before there was anywhere else wide enough, which would take all day. Luckily our calculations proved correct and we were soon on our way north again.

The wind was quite strong all day, but directly behind us, so not too difficult to cope with.

We filled up with water again just below the top Curdworth lock, then carried on down the flight to the hotel where we’d chosen to stay for the up-coming second lockdown. The canal was getting thick with leaves, making it impossible to go more than a hundred yards without having to go into reverse to clear the prop. Getting a wad of wet leaves stuck to the propeller can really slow you down and can be a worrying thing for new boaters. The boat goes all slow and juddery and you know there’s something wrong, so you pull over to check the prop, inevitably using reverse gear as you do. You open the weed hatch and the prop is clear, (all the leaves have either spun off in reverse or simply dropped off when you stopped) so you shut it back up and off you go. All is fine for another few minutes then it all goes slow and juddery again. After the third time this happens you get in a right panic with thoughts of broken gearboxes and failed stern tubes and you’re convinced the boat is going to sink, until you realise what’s really going on.

We call it the Minestrone Season.

We moored up just before the Marston Farm Hotel at Bodymoor Heath. Although being right outside on the mooring rings would have made easier access to the carpark, (which the hotel staff had kindly allowed us to use during lockdown) it was a bit shaded there and in November we need every photon of sunshine we can get.

CRT had suspended the Continuous Cruising requirements to move every 14 days for the duration of lockdown, and advised all boaters to only make essential journeys, so we took advantage of our extended stay and started on the engine rebuild.

Our planned project included new pistons, piston rings and barrels. The SR3 is an air cooled engine and, just like an old fashioned motorbike; each barrel is separate and lifts off the block complete with its piston once the con-rod has been released from the crankshaft.

Unlike a conventional engine which would have to be lifted out of the boat to gain access to the crankshaft, Lister made the SR3 with marine installations in mind and included a removable side ‘door’ on the crank case. Although easier than craning the whole lump out and back in again, gaining access to the far side of the bottom half of the engine is still a pain, and involved some serious contortions on Dave’s part, especially as he was now working underneath the newly installed washing machine. When we put the washing machine in, we measured all the crucial gaps and access points and made sure that getting round the back was possible. And it is. However possible and comfortable are two different things, so it was fortunate that we weren’t in a hurry and Dave could go and tinker with it without any pressure.
We filled the time in-between with wood collection and a few walks, and Ann-Marie made a sterling job of cleaning the roof which had become really grubby with leaf residue. She also made a Bonfire Cake to make up for us not having a WRG bonfire bash this year.

Talking of WRG, Nigel - one of our navvy mates who we last saw at Tewkesbury on his way round the Avon Ring - dropped by the boat one afternoon. His boat is currently at Glascote basin where he works, so he had a walk down to us for a socially distanced cup of tea and a slice of the bonfire cake. Virtual chats with friends and family are all very well, but it’s only when you spend a bit of real time with a real person that you realise how much you’ve missed it.

Back in the engine room, Dave got the new pistons and barrels installed...

...and finally figured out how to get round the oil pipes to get the con-rod nuts back on and torqued up. Once that was done he could seal up the crankcase door and never have to go back round there again. (Doubtful)

All that left was the little matter of adjusting the clearance between the cylinder heads and the pistons. This has to be very accurate; too little and the valves will hit the piston, too much and there won’t be enough compression to ignite the fuel. Measuring the gap is very old school. You place two small pieces of lead soldering wire on top of the piston...

The grease is to keep them in place.
...replace the head and tighten it down, turn the engine through 360˚ so that the piston goes past top dead centre, squashing the lead wire against the cylinder head as it does so.

 then take the head off again and measure how thick the lead is with a micrometer.

The gasket set includes a set of 0.01mm shims for placing under the cylinder head gasket should you need to adjust the gap. Dave carefully followed the procedure and all three were within tolerance with no need for any adjustment. However, when he came to tighten the head bolts for real with the inlet and exhaust manifold on
, he discovered that the torque settings were 50ft/lb, which was quite a bit more than he’d done for the checks. Would that make the clearance too small? Possibly, but here was only one way to tell for certain, so it was lucky there was no rush. Two days later, at the correct torque setting, two of the heads needed a shim to bring them into tolerance, but the other one was fine.

Ten days after starting the strip down, and with quite a few days off in between, we finally finished the rebuild and restarted the engine for a test run. There was a bit of smoking, but nowhere near what it had been, and probably just oil from the rebuild burning off. It might be that we need to get the injectors reconditioned, but we’ll run the new stuff in first.

Outside of the engine room lockdown life has still been going on. Bonfire night came and went; Ann-Marie lovingly painted our bonfire bunting and hung it up in the windows, where no-one came past the boat to see it. The weather is getting more wintry, wet and windy with waves on the canal and mud everywhere. We’ve had a couple of walks round the beautiful Kingsbury Waterpark with its ever growing population of migratory water birds.

Also there’s a flock of Fieldfares round here which provide entertainment and one day we were delighted to see a Goldcrest, a first for us.

Now he’s out of the engine room, Dave has been getting in Ann-Marie’s way in the kitchen and has started making bread in an effort to minimise our trips to the shops. We’re also using dried milk powder instead of fresh and when we do go shopping we make sure we stock up on tinned stuff.

There are very few people walking past the boat. Unlike Wallingford where we were close to the town and nearly everyone took their allotted exercise on the Thames path, out here, away from anywhere big, we get the occasional dog walker and the odd fisherman, but that’s all. Apart from Nigel and half a dozen words with another boater, we’ve not talked to anyone in person since we got here. This winter is going to be tough for solo liveaboards; at least we’ve got each other.

The almost total lack of boat movement at the moment has resulted in the canal water becoming amazingly clear. Being able to see just how shallow the edges are in most places is a bit of an eye opener! There is truth in the saying that what you can’t see doesn’t worry you.

In order to restrict our boat movements as much as possible, we’re going to stay where we are until we run out of drinking water. When that happens we’ll go down the next two locks to the tap and then reverse back up one lock to the moorings outside the Dog and Doublet pub, where we’ll stay till this lockdown is all over, however long that may be.

We hope you’re staying safe and well in these troubled times Dear Reader, remember there is always light at the end of every tunnel.

Monday 9 November 2020

Grand Union Canal. Biringham and Fazeley Canal. Knowle to Curdworth.

Autumn has definitely arrived; we’ve got a fire in most days, Dave’s been out wombling for wood, and Ann-Marie has pulled all the summer veg plants out and replaced them with spring bulbs.

After a day of rain, a wet grass and muddy walk over to Temple Balsal left us both with wet feet. We live in our walking boots - Dave especially - even really good ones rarely last more than 3 years and at the end of last winter we knew we’d both be needing new ones before long.

A couple of days later, with some help from the CRT volunteer lock keepers, we climbed up the beautiful Knowle locks and moored up just before Kixley Lane bridge.

Another lovely mooring and the best place for access to the town. We really like Knowle, the people
are friendly and the town is the perfect size to be big enough to be useful without being soul-less.

The idea of getting wet feet again finally over came our trepidation about shoe shopping in a time of Covid, so we gritted our loins and girded our teeth and drove into Solihull to buy new walking boots. Despite the stress of trying boots on while wearing a face mask and trying to maintain social distance, it wasn't quite as horrific as we’d expected, and we both managed to find a pair we were happy with in Millets, which was the first shop we went in.

The following morning Martin and Yvonne were coming to see us on their way to Hawne Basin. When they’re not on Evolution over winter, they take their gas bottles home to use at the cottage, so between us we’d hatched a cunning plan. They could bring their spare full gas bottle with them and sell it to us, then they could take our empty one to Hawne for exchange and take it home. We’d also arranged to give them our remaining wooden garden chair. After the other one got stolen at Stourport there didn’t seem much point only having one. So when they drove down Kixley lane to the little parking spot, they found Dave waiting for them, sat on a chair next to a gas bottle on a sack truck. Oh how we laughed.

Ann-Marie had made a delicious orange and almond cake and, because we were in tier 2 and our guests weren’t allowed inside, we made take-away coffee and took a picnic down to the top of the locks where we sat on the gates and admired the view.

Back at the boat it had brightened up a bit so we were able to roll the cratch cover up and sit in the well deck where we had more coffee and finished the cake off before they left. In the afternoon we moved the car to Chelmsley Wood, which is nowhere near a canal, but at a point half way as the crow flies between Knowle on the GU, and Curdworth on the Birmingham and Fazeley. We left it in it’s natural habitat; on the roadside in the urban sprawl, just one more anonymous silver hatchback amid all the others. Our walk back to the boat was an eclectic mix of footways; tree lined pavements through the huge Birmingham Airport industrial complex...

...dizzy-high overpasses spanning Junction 4 of the M42, the noisy pavement along the side of Catherine-de-Barnes lane and the quiet towpath back to Legend.

In the morning Dave did a quick early morning run into Knowle for some bread rolls, then we set off with a big day’s boating ahead. First the ten mile summit from Knowle to Camp Hill with the water about eight inches below where it should have been. We’d phoned CRT about the low water when we first got to the top, and we’d asked a couple of the maintenance team guys what was going on, and the consensus seemed to be that there was a leak somewhere but until it gets bigger they won’t be able to find it. It didn’t cause us any major problems though. It was slow going sometimes - to avoid making a wash - and we cloncked over the bottom more than once going through bridge holes, but there was very little traffic, we only passed two boats going the other way, so keeping to the middle was easy.

Camp Hill is the furthest north that wide beam boats on the Southern canals and rivers can go.

The major improvement program in the 1930s that saw the GU widened and straightened only got as far as there before resistance from the Birmingham narrowboat companies, who were concerned about losing their monopoly, combined with the growing realisation that moving freight by road and rail was the way forward, brought it all to a grinding halt. Camp Hill locks and all the others on the Birmingham Canal Navigations are only seven feet wide. Just before the locks there there is a big space to turn, enough secure overnight moorings for two or three boats and and a very good services block. We emptied out and filled up, then set off down the locks to Bordesley Junction where we turned right onto the last part of the GU - formerly the beginning of the Birmingham and Warwick Junction Canal - and down Garrison Locks.

New water for us; we try to ticking off another bit of the BCN whenever we can, but with more canals than Venice, there’s still an awful lot of it we haven’t done. At the bottom of Garrison locks we had a late lunch on the go, then at Star City, under Spaghetti Junction on the M6, we turned right onto the Birmingham and Fazeley.
The graffiti and razor wire of the city gradually receded as we headed north-east, then as we dropped down the three Minworth locks the open fields returned.
After a big 10 hour boating day, we finally stopped just short of Curdworth outside the Cuttle Bridge inn.

The next morning we had a lovely walk back to Chelmsley Wood through Water Orton...

...and some very pleasant urban parks and were back at the boat just in time for lunch. In the afternoon, because the pub’s all night flood lights were a bit bright, we moved up through the next bridge.

Crucially, that bridge was on the county border between Minworth in Birmingham and Curdworth in Warwickshire so we moved from Covid Tier 2 into Tier 1, which meant that when M&Y came for lunch on their way home the next day they were able to come through the doors. Yipee. In actual fact they didn’t spend very long indoors as it was such a nice day we sat out on the towpath and had a barbecue.

We stayed at Curdworth for the full fortnight, there were some lovely autumnal days when we got out for walks, and we had a drive over to Wenlock to spend a day with Alison and pick up the new engine bits that had arrived. It began to look likely that there was going to be another lockdown, so while we could still travel, we went down to Mum and Dad’s to fit the carpet tiles in the hallway...

...and took the opportunity to pop in on our mates at Wallingford on the way. All the time we were moored there we had either been flooded or in the first lockdown, and despite living next door to Colin and Julia for months, we’d never actually been inside Smith’s Lady, so it was really wonderful to finally be able to step aboard and have a look round their beautiful boat. Steve came over and joined us and we spent a far too short couple of hours catching up and swapping watery tales. Colin had recently fitted a water purifying system, which we were very interested in. Water collection was the only thing that made our life difficult when we were stuck; being able to make drinking quality water from a river would make us completely independent. And at £500 for the whole system it certainly gave us something to think about.

The carpet fitting went quite well. Dave started on Friday while Ann-Marie helped Mum with her new raised bed in the garden, then we all had fish and chips at Karen’s in the evening.

On Saturday Dave finished the carpet tiles and started on the six threshold strips. They were a bit of a pain because the screws were too short, but once Dad came up with some longer ones it was all fine.

After lunch on the Sunday we set off home via Aldermaston where Ken and Annie were moored on Ceilidh. It was really good to catch up with them as we hadn’t seen them for ages.

The next day we turned the boat round. This killed two birds with one stone; first it meant we could go the the nearest tap and fill up, and second it put the chimney on the towpath side so Dave could fit the new stainless steel chimney liner and clean up the side of the boat where the old galvanised liner had leaked sooty tar all down it.

 There was a lock between the windy hole and the tap, so we turned round and went down  backwards.

Always nice to do something exciting!

On Friday afternoon, after a rather wet week, Dave took the old rusty flue pipe out ready to go over to Ernie the Welder in the morning.

It came out relatively easily, mainly because there wasn’t a lot of metal left above the join with the ceiling collar.

Of course that meant we didn’t have any heating, but luckily it was really mild that weekend, so we snuggled up under the duvet with the electric blanket on. We’d had a new length of pipe delivered to Ernie so, in the morning, as soon as Dave turned up with the old one to use as a pattern he got on with it.

Between them Dave and Ernie decided that as the old pipe was only rotten at the top, it made sense to replace that bit rather than scrap the whole thing and make a new one. That meant that even with quite a bit of time spent getting the angles perfect, Ernie had it all done in an hour and only charged us £50.

Of course it also meant that we only used about a foot of the new pipe and we’ve now got to find somewhere to keep what’s left. Dad’s garage perhaps?

As soon as he got back , Dave got on with putting the pipe back in so that we could have a fire again. He used mineral fibre insulation to make up the gap between the pipe and the collar and sealed up the joints with high temperature mastic.

Unfortunately we had to then leave it for 24 hours for the mastic to cure, so that meant another evening under the duvet, this time with the electric blanket, pizza and wine. It’s a a hard life.

Dave was up early to paint the flue and the stove top with stove paint, then we went off for a day with Laura and Alison on Wenlock Edge. Anne joined us there for Laura’s lovely Lamb curry and left with some cushions. (It’s a long story. Short version: L&A are swapping the cushions on their new corner unit. Anne is building a new sofa and needs cushions.)

When we got back home we lit a couple of small fires to cure the paint properly, followed by a proper fire to finally get the boat warm again.

To be fair we were really lucky with the weather, we had no heating for three days around Halloween and only got slightly chilly. Halloween is our First Kiss anniversary, and although we didn’t have our usual warm hats and coats towpath barbecue surrounded by candles, we’ll still remember this one.


New Haw Lock to Boveney. River Wey. River Thames.

After pulling the pins at New Haw we dropped down the last four locks on the Wey... Cox's Mill Lock Town Lock The final stretch of the W...